1. MUSEUM HOURS
When I pitch this film to friends, I can see their eyes glaze over with descriptions of “slow and quiet,” “lots of shots of artwork,” “a friendship instead of a romance.” I wish I could more succinctly capture why I love this exquisitely wrought, distinctively wise film so dearly. It is sturdy in its stillness and unearths humanity so delicately. The two leads, Mary Margaret O’Hara and Bobby Sommer, are pure grace and soul. Writer/director Jem Cohen has created a gift of a film. “It is bluer than I could tell.”
2. TO THE WONDER
Love begins to describe it. The familiar and alien as two sides of the same undulating ribbon. “…in a dream you can’t make mistakes.” I know now what it is to have my life flash before my eyes–a beautiful, tear-inducing (and, yes, religious) experience. God bless you, Terrence Malick.
3. LIKE SOMEONE IN LOVE
Punishing, pure, poetic. Mungiu is a piercingly keen observer of humanity’s weaknesses. Breathtaking compositions. Heart-rending storytelling. A crucible. A mirror. A painting.
5. THE ACT OF KILLING
The most revealing “selfie” ever. Of Anwar. Of humankind.
6. POST TENEBRAS LUX
“I could feel every blade.” Thank you, Mr. Reygadas. You made a The Tree of Life that I could embrace wholeheartedly. The theme? I think Michael Sicinski described it best: “…the need to defend the family against all potential threats, foreign and domestic.” Many complain of the choice to shoot with an almost constant “tilt shift” focus, but I found it powerful. It creates the closest replication of what a first-person POV, personal memory “looks like” to me. And those first several minutes are some of the most gorgeous I’ve ever experienced in a darkened theater.
7. COMPUTER CHESS
“Everything is not everything.” Artifacts on a collision course. Kubrickian moves in miniature. What a screenplay. What a delight.
8. YOU AIN’T SEEN NOTHIN’ YET
Romantic, quixotic, intoxicating. A gambit of the heart, a song for the soul. Resnais and his stellar cast conjure magic.
9. THE GREAT BEAUTY
“What’s wrong with feeling nostalgic?” Indulgently sweeping, sweetly fleeting. A lush reminder of what cinema can do. Bravo, Sorrentino and Servillo.
Jeff Nichols does America proud with a Huck Finn tale that knots a handsome, homespun fable out of rope, dust, silt and spit. One great performance after another with dialogue as lived-in as decade-old dungarees.
“I was there.” So plainly American. Like drinking from a stream or recognizing the pinch of a bruise. Dern and Forte are surprisingly strong sparring partners.
12. THE PAST
It wasn’t this film’s plot or dialogue that fascinated me, but all the delicately observed details–from visual metaphors tucked around the decaying house to gut-punches delivered in the smallest gestures. Farhadi is a master storyteller.
13. THE COUNSELOR
It’s an honor to be the quarry when Ridley and Cormac are killing it. Elegant, brutal, philosophical, romantic and dead sexy.
What a thrill to soak up the spoils of director Chan-wook Park’s lush visual imagination. Thrumming with an electric love of the delicious dark. Ever-so-grimly comic at its core with a florid fascination with what lures the female heart, mind and desire–potential weapons all.
15. BLUE JASMINE
I don’t remember Woody ever feeling this relaxed. Just tremendous. Cate wrings herself out and it’s a thrill to watch her operate.
16. SIDE EFFECTS
A sly thriller teeming with sharp social commentary. Vividly captures the tightrope walk of maintaining one’s security and reputation in modern life. It seems all manner of manipulation is breathtaking in Soderbergh’s hands. Jude Law gives one of the best performances of the year as a man who is crumbling in the face of scandal. I went unusually long on this film over on my Letterboxd.com post.
17. MOTHER OF GEORGE
Shots so gorgeous, you can feel them in your molars. A satisfyingly assured command of what to leave out. Director Andrew Dosunmu and DP Bradford Young weave true beauty.
18. NOBODY’S DAUGHTER HAEWON
Limited exposure to Hong made me think I’d always find his films maddening, but this pleasant drift (aka FRANCES HA-EWON) grew on me steadily in the 48 hours after seeing it. I was especially impressed by the film’s examination of the currency of “pretty,” which is done off-handedly, but powerfully. Jeong Eun-Chae’s performance gradually won me over too. Hopefully this film will get a U.S. release, but I’m including it here just in case it doesn’t.
19. WHITE HOUSE DOWN
A total blast. The most fun I’ve had at an action film in a loooong while. Tatum and Clarke delighted me. Surprisingly visually plush for the genre. Felt like putting on cashmere.
20. FRANCES HA
A very sweet, pleasant diversion that has become my latest go-to hang-out film. I’ll just stream it on Netflix in the background to enjoy glimpses of glimpses and sound bites of that charming dialogue. Refreshing to see Baumbach play it loose. Gerwig is a special kind of sunshine.
Looking at my Netflix shipping history, I average about 200 movies a year. There were some that I loved but would not be everyone’s cup of tea (Good Dick, Dirty Girl, Matisse/Picasso, Mark of Cain). The following picks I would recommend to anyone.
Kumare: It starts out like a well intentioned Borat, but instead Kumare ends up being his own victim. The best hug ever captured on film.
Human Desire: A film noir with a femme fatale who actually drives the plot. Gloria Grahame is a true puppet master. The more over the top she goes, the more sinister and scary she becomes.
Brass Teapot: A thought provoking comedy. This film has it all!
Elles: There are a lot of very controversial assumptions baked into Elles. But the story it tells is how fragile people are even when it seems they have life all figured out. Dear Hollywood, please do not attempt a remake of this movie, I still haven’t forgiven you for messing with perfection by remaking Le diner de cons.
Please Vote For Me: Take that Mr. Smith Goes to Washington! The only thing more sad than the tears of the children who weren’t elected is how the election was decided. The film makers do a great job of getting out of the way.
House of Cards: So Good!
While easy on the eyes, this film fumbles the story. Chekhov told a pretty conventional story, in The Lady with the Little Dog. It’s a love story but a love story ultimately skeptical of love. The Lovers tells a pretty unconventional story, but it feels so conventional. I think Malle is trying to make the same point as Chekhov but instead he falls victim to the bane of French film: he gets tripped up in style.
It always bothered me that all of the characters on Friends were living this glamorous Manhattan lifestyle when they had such crappy jobs. Frances Ha doesn’t sugarcoat how expensive and how hard it is to live in New York. The scene where Frances’ credit card gets rejected made my heart sing. Frances (Greta Gerwig) is clearly not in life’s fast lane and we see hipster Brooklyn / yuppie Manhattan from her perspective, yea for normal people! We all love to hate hipsters (I’m looking at you, Austin) but as Frances’ circle of friends and acquaintances expands, Frances goes from looking like a quirky outsider to potentially needing an intervention. As she goes from one bad break to the next, Frances accelerates the downward spiral by making each bad situation far worse. It’s not cute or endearing – it’s kind of scary and pathetic. The film eventually reaches an inflection point, is this a quirky character beats the odds kind of movie or a lovable character hits bottom movie?
Director Noah Baumbach has made those awkward in-between stages of life something of a specialty (think of John Hughes but as with dramas not comedies). In fact, for a film with such a thin plot, which focuses almost exclusively on one character, it paints a very detailed portrait very quickly. Filming in black and white on the busy city streets gives the film a blurry, fast feel.
When a movie’s title has the main character’s name, you can bet that you will be spending a lot of time with them; Frances Ha is no exception. Greta Gerwig is in literally every scene of the movie. Frances is a newly single, struggling (and not very graceful) dancer. Her best friend and flat-mate recently moved to a new apartment in fashionable Tribeca and got engaged. Frances’ life is upended. Although Gerwig’s does a great job of conveying a lot of information in these quotidian scenes, there is something missing. For someone circling the drain, she seems delusionally too comfortable in her own skin. It is easy to be of two minds about Frances, but the rest of the cast is made up of unsympathetic (even by New York standards) characters. When Frances turns the corner from being Bridget Jones and becomes self destructive, the audience is left with no one to root for.
Frances Ha ends on an upbeat note, without exactly having a happy ending. Baumbaugh resists the temptation of going for a cheap rescue ending that allow us to assume that her change in fortune means that she is a better person for her struggle. Baumbach stays on message and within reality, making Frances Ha the anti-Bridget Jones. When Frances hits bottom with style, ordinary events once again conspire to sap what should have been a cool episode into something completely unsatisfying and wasted.
So is Frances Ha worth it? While the film’s realism is a nice change of pace, ultimately there isn’t a lot of “there” there. Even as a date movie, I’m not sure there is much to talk about over drinks afterwards. In life it really is about the little things; at the movies, there is such a thing as too little.
Jay Gatsby is one of those mysterious figures who, as they become revealed to us, reveal something about us. Leonardo DiCaprio, as Jay Gatsby, delivers a performance that stays true to the myth of the man while allowing us to pick apart the myths that are his bane. Despite the nuance and strength of DiCaprio’s performance, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel is far bigger than just the story of a man and DiCaprio can only take the movie so far.
The story goes like this: Jay Gatsby was poor when he met and fell in love with the Louisville debutante Daisy Fay (Carey Mulligan). While Gatsby was trying to climb the socio/economic ladder, old money Tom Buchanan (Joel Egerton) swooped in and stole Daisy away. Gatsby has made his fortune; now that he is worthy of Daisy’s love, he is ready to pick up from where they left off. Everything Gatsby does including the wild parties at his mansion every weekend are all geared towards getting Daisy’s attention. What could possibly go wrong? The story is told through the eyes of Gatsby’s neighbor and Daisy’s cousin Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) who becomes Gatsby’s go-between in rekindling the relationship with Daisy. Through Nick’s eyes we see the whole picture.
If you have seen the previews for the film (and you have) you have undoubtedly seen shots of the outrageous parties that make Gatsby a legend. While the outstanding dancing and music is amazing, it doesn’t feel like decadence — it feels like hard work and endless practice. The Broadway-style song & dance aren’t helped by the peripatetic camera-work. Combined it is all too much, which diminishes the power of what is supposed to be the best part of the movie.
In adapting the novel, director Baz Luhrman has made some controversial choices. He tries to keep the heavy writing of F. Scott Fitzgerald with copious amounts of narration. With such famous prose at the beginning and end of the film, narration was probably inevitable (and made even more inevitable by casting Mr. wide-eyed moralist himself Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway). But film is a visual medium, and when you are adapting a book you have to show, not tell. The narration in the middle of the film is an interruption and Tobey Maguire is a twerp.
I could live with all of that, but it is Luhrman’s interpretation that really turned me off. I just reread the Great Gatsby again last week. Among my many disappointments, the biggest is the diminished importance of the Jordan Baker character. It is made even more disappointing because the sexy, complicated performance by Elizabeth Debicki that left me wanting more. Old friends with Daisy back in the Louisville days; Jordan didn’t marry into the elite strata. In the novel, she cheated and lied her way to the top of professional golf circuit only to get caught and become disgraced. As the embodiment of the different set of rules that apply to the rich and powerful, she gives a defense of recklessness as chilling and memorable as Marie Antoinette’s apocryphal “Let them eat cake.” Unforgivably, none of this is included in the film.
The parallels, the links, the way it is woven together are what makes The Great Gatsby, well, great. It doesn’t just hold up a mirror to us as individuals, it holds up a mirror for an entire era, an entire country. You don’t have to get into F. Scott Fitzgerald’s impasto symbolism to understand that he is writing about what is all around us — still around us today.
Would I recommend seeing Gatsby? Yeah, I would recommend it. It is a big movie with a $127 million budget that people are going to have an opinion about (but I wouldn’t recommend seeing it in 3D, where it looks like a cartoon).
In the novel, the Great Gatsby, nothing is what it seems; in the film by Baz Luhrman, everything is exactly what it seems. The creativity and inventiveness Luhrman displayed in his earlier hits, Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge, has been drown out in a true stroke of irony, by money and ambition.
Broken City begins in fast-paced muddle. It begins at a blurry crime scene, and move quickly to a tense courtroom. At the same time that New York cop Billy Taggert (Mark Wahlberg) is having the charges for murder dismissed against him in court, Mayor Hoestetler (Russell Crowe) is being made aware of incriminating evidence against Billy that would certainly send him to prison – quite a coincidence in timing wouldn’t you say? The mayor is willing to face down the police commissioner (Carl Fairbanks) and a race riot to keep the evidence hidden so long has Billy resigns. Billy is a cop, a good guy; the murder victim is clearly a bad guy. It seems like a normal, everyday kind of conspiracy for the greater good. There is something reminiscent of the Godfather when the Mayor assures Billy that their paths will cross again.
Seven years later Billy Taggert is putting his law enforcement background to work as a tough-talking private detective. But Billy isn’t a businessman. So the Mayor’s phone call with a $50K job to get proof of his wife’s (Catherine Zeta-Jones) infidelity comes like a financial deus ex machina for Billy.
At the end of Act 1 Billy’s pretty ordinary problems have been solved in the time allotted for a sitcom. But what appears to have been a simple solution actually puts Billy in the middle of a classic film noir plot.
Probably you’ve heard the term, film noir, those black and white films that exaggerate lighting and are equal parts drama and thriller. What defines film noir beyond style is the presence of dark forces at work that pull the characters into a fate that they futilely try to resist.
That brings us back to the opening scene that ultimately drives the whipsaw plot twists not to mention the layers of secrets and motives caked on top of each other. Beyond Billy’s increasingly messy circumstances are the ordinary vices that are staples for police movies: corruption and adultery. Broken City resists the temptation to get on a soapbox as it exposes the heros as villians and celebrates the antiheros. And so it goes in Broken City, the Mayor, his wife, his opponent in the election, the police commissioner, powerful campaign donors are all linked together in a web of corruption that turn what is good and bad upsidedown.
Broken City is a conventionally done movie aimed squarely at a general audience, which is it say that it is meant to be believable. It is also very fast paced. It’s portrayal of politics, budget issues, and the juxtaposition of the very wealthy with the poor could only be more current if it all took place on Oprah’s couch. At the same time, Broken City is a gateway film to noir classics like Kiss Me Deadly and the Maltese Falcon. True film noir with its femme fatales, it’s sizzlingly over the top dialogue, is an acquired taste – while Broken City is a real crowd pleaser.
My four year old is the worst storyteller. He includes details that are superfluous and leaves out details that are necessary to understand the conclusion of his story. At the same time, there is something marvelous about learning the details he notices and those he doesn’t. I love seeing how his embellishments seamlessly become a part of the story. It is this flawed but charming way kids tell stories that is at the center of the movie Beasts of the Southern Wild. It sounds cute doesn’t it?
In fact, it is disturbing. The camera wanders past squalor that our protagonist, a six-year old, African-American girl called Hush Puppy, takes for granted. More than just narrating the film, Hush Puppy is the story teller. Despite the horror with which the audience sees this civilization, we (especially as parents) are reminded by the flawed, patchy way the Hush Puppy tells the story; of the way our own kids would tell it. Just like when my son tells a story, I started to lose track of what actually happened and what didn’t – what is a shiny detail and what is part of the plot.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is set on an island south of Louisiana known to its inhabitants as “the Bathtub.” With no stores, no school, and no post office, the residents of the Bathtub are focused on survival. Their cherished way of life looks primitive, but they are close to nature in a long forgotten mystical way. Shortly after our introduction to the community, the residents are preparing for an epic storm. Actually, prepare might not be the right term. Hush Puppy’s father, Wink, “prepares” by instructing Hush Puppy sit in a flimsy suitcase, while he gets drunk, curses out the storm and then shoot a gun at it. Despite his efforts, the storm is devastating. All but a few houses are underwater. The water doesn’t recede and the salt water starts to kill everything on the island. There is an ‘us vs. them’ moment where the remaining community has to confront the levee that keeps the Bathtub under water and protects their civilization from interference from the rest of the world. After they take action, it is impossible for the outside world to ignore them anymore. It is the turning point of the movie. As the residents are confronted with modern values that the audience takes for granted, the Bathtub civilization starts to make sense.
The story is told on two levels; and this is really where the film is brilliant. There is a tension throughout between the objective circumstances that are a part of the story and scattershot narrative of Hush Puppy. At the adult level, it is difficult not to judge. Wink (Hush Puppy’s father) who initially seems like an almost inhumane parent starts to come into focus. Like all of us, there was a conscious reason behind his disturbing ‘Boy-Named-Sue’ style of parenting
The remoteness, the poverty, the erratic relationships are all made real and terrifying by the outstanding performances of first time actors Quvenzhané Wallis (Hush Puppy) and Dwight Henry (Wink). Wallis holds the movie together, delivering a visceral performance that makes your hear break for her as if you were her own mother and father. Wallis is the youngest actress ever to be nominated for an Oscar (see interview here). Beasts of the Southern Wild has three additional Oscar Nominations including Best Picture and Best Director. It is also a favorite of First Lady, Michelle Obama as reported by the Washington Post.
Would I recommend Beasts of the Southern Wild? That’s complicated. With it showing only at the AngelikaTheaters in Plano and Dallas, it isn’t necessarily an easy movie to get to. And it isn’t really an easy movie to watch, and it doesn’t get easier towards the end.
As a parent, I found the film to be humbling. Hush Puppy responds so strongly to her father on his level, embracing values and lessons Wink is trying to teach her. At the same time, she wears her emotions and her vulnerability on her sleeve as only a child can. In the end, there is something universally incorruptible and innocent about the way a child perceives the world, even a world that is so much harder than the one any of us knows.
With big wins already in Cannes and at Sundance, you can count on Beasts of the Southern Wild to be a favorite at the Oscars, and maybe even around the water cooler. If you chose to use one of your all too precious date-nights to see Beasts (I feel your pain), you might pad baby sitting budget a bit so you can go out for a drink afterwards. This is the kind of film that you are going to want to talk about. And it is the kind of film that makes you sneak into your son’s room when you get home and give him a little kiss on the forehead.
#1 Thursday Till Sunday
The predawn light, tinted blue. A sensible car, hatchback agape. A sleep-heavy child, lugged from bed. These opening scene details in Chilean writer/director Dominga Sotomayor’s yet-unreleased feature film debut, Thursday Till Sunday, herald the arrival of one to watch. This is a young filmmaker with an uncannily precise sense of observation and an undeniably keen eye for composition.
That sensible car is soon toting a family of four on a long road trip that looks to be their last, as the parents are considering a separation. Somehow turning the claustrophobic setting of a mid-sized vehicle into one beautifully framed shot after another, Sotomayor elegantly delineates the great divide that separates the driver’s seat of adulthood from the dependents who are literally and figuratively taking the back seat in their parents’ personal crisis.
While stops along the road provide some expository elaborations, there is always an intoxicating artlessness afoot in the way the film looks, feels and sounds. In knowing exactly what to leave out, Sotomayor’s evocative minimalism feels like a curative. I can’t wait to see what she does next.
#2 Moonrise Kingdom
I’ve been a Wes Anderson fan from the early days of his career and have consistently found whimsical magic in the intricate worlds he crafts. Exploring broken families, innocent love and true forgiveness,Moonrise Kingdom sustains thematic chords from Anderson’s oeuvre beautifully.
While winsome and witty, the film’s heart is shot through with melancholy, telling the tale of an orphaned boy scout and his star-crossed love—both of whom are only 12 years old.
Shot in 16mm and resembling the faded turquoise, orange and yellow of vintage Polaroid photos, the film perfectly evokes a very particular time and place: 1965 on an island off the coast of New England, to be exact. Unfortunately, but entertainingly, the adults roaming about in this nostalgic tale are stiffly sad, consistently uniformed and stubbornly determined to keep Suzy and Sam, the youthful love birds in question, from pursuing their romance.
In one of a trio of movingly frank scenes in the center of the film, Suzy’s mother and father talk in their darkened bedroom. The conversation is simply stated and quietly performed, but despite its unassuming air, it represents an emotional milestone in Anderson’s work. No punches are pulled. No winking punchlines are detonated. It’s just two seasoned actors (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) speaking on behalf of filmmaking’s eternal boy scout, but this time by way of a newfound, profound maturity. Wonder badge earned, Mr. Anderson.
#3 Damsels in Distress
Much has been made of writer/director Whit Stillman’s long absence from filmmaking. While Damsels in Distress arrived fashionably late, it’s a wry and pretty delight. As a comedy, it may seem prim at first, but it’s no goody-two-shoes. It aims and sinks its arrows neatly, making withering observations about society and human nature as it simultaneously charms.
Shining through in the majority of scenes, Greta Gerwig hits perfect notes as Violet, a college student who longs to make the world a better place, one person at a time. It’s her character who unexpectedly becomes the beating heart of Damsels in Distress, as she finds herself as lost and lonely as her protégés.
With his signature wit and empathetic warmth, Stillman has polished up a sweet little gem of a film that’s got much wisdom to share. Why, it even has a healthy dose of optimism, plus characters dancing at the drop of a hat and an irresistible soundtrack to match. Whit is it!
#4 Miss Bala
Mexican writer/director Gerardo Naranjo wanted to test that the film he had in his head would work, especially since he was casting an inexperienced actress in the lead. So he test-shot the whole thing on video before he shot the actual film. The whole thing. It seems like an insanely demanding step to add to pre-pro, but Naranjo credits Miss Bala’s seamlessness to it.
Starring the very striking Stephanie Sigman as a poor young woman who dreams of beauty queen status, Miss Bala quickly raises the stakes by becoming enmeshed in the brutally violent world of drug cartels.
The spare sleekness of Miss Bala, and the sense that the filmmaker is observing more than editorializing, makes the indictment of systemic sickness something the audience can process on their own terms. The film itself moves like sliding pressure panels and is jarringly perforated by the pop-pop-pop of gunplay. As humble as it is mighty, Miss Balafeels like an indie movie in the best way possible: created on a shoestring, but as fierce as a locomotive.
Inspired to build a movie around mixed martial artist Gina Carano, Soderbergh picked up the phone and told collaborator Lem Dobbs to write it. The result is a tidily constructed, tensely coiled, tight little action/thriller flick that tells the story of a black ops super soldier left to fend for herself when she’s betrayed.
Adding to the sparks are entertaining turns by Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender, Channing Tatum, Antonio Banderas and Michael Douglas as men who get in our heroine’s way, in one way or another. The jazz-infused soundtrack is as saucy as hell, setting a perfect rhythm for the hold-your-breath action.
While Carano’s acting chops are the only weak thing about her, she turns in a performance that serves its purpose sturdily. And after you’ve seen her mop the floor with an adversary, you won’t really care if a line reading isn’t perfect. She is an undeniable femme fatale and her star vehicle, HAYWIRE, packs a delicious punch. Please don’t retire, Stevie.
Nictate plays a Peggy Olson type by day, working as a copywriter in advertising. Movies have always been a passion of hers, but it’s only been since joining Twitter in 2007 that her cinephile thirst has grown exponentially. Interacting with critics and fellow enthusiasts online has deepened her understanding of and passion for film and the quest to learn more feels (pleasantly) never-ending. You can follow nictate on twitter at www.twitter.com/nictate
1) The Separation, the deserved winner of the Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Film and the work I consider the best film of 2011 (though it opened here in 2012, thus qualifying for this list).
3) Moonrise Kingdom, an especially winning example of Wes Anderson’s melancholic whimsy.
4) The Deep Blue Sea, the latest masterpiece from Terence Davies, a filmmaker whom I’ve long admired and whose The Long Day Closes ranks among my Top 10 all time.
5) Footnote, an Israeli film that manages to mine surprising comedy and drama from Talmudic scholarship.
Cliff Froehlich is the director of Cinema St. Louis. Cinema St. Louis organizes film competitions throughout the year and the St. Louis Film Festival.